Justin Hendrix is CEO and Editor of Tech Policy Press. This piece represents his opinion, and not necessarily that of any other individual associated with Tech Policy Press.
Imagine it is September, 1939. Germany has invaded Poland on the false premise that Poland has joined with Britain and France in a bid to attack it.
But add a tweak to the timeline- imagine there is a set of major publishers based in the United States who channel Hitler’s propaganda campaign across the globe, including to a substantial American audience. Imagine Hitler has built an incredible capacity to manipulate media, use out of context images and film, create the impression of support by inventing false personas, and to engage in a variety of other tactics that have been observed to advance his aims, taking advantage of the capabilities these publishers provide and their lax enforcement of their own standards. Imagine that every official and government entity loyal to Hitler also has a deal with these publishers, and their own means to easily reach a global audience instantly.
Would you demand those publishers pull the plug on Hitler, or would you defend the German state’s right to some confused notion of “free speech,” even as Hitler sets out to destroy the lives of millions?
That is the situation Google, Facebook, Twitter and other U.S. tech firms are faced with right now, as they host, distribute, amplify and in some cases help monetize Vladimir Putin’s propaganda outlets– including Russian state media that are already registered as foreign agents, as well as the official accounts of Putin’s government and its officials. With military vehicles pushing west across Ukraine, bombs falling on its cities, and blood already shed in its streets, Putin’s propaganda machine continues to advance its message on American social media platforms, part of a wholly illegal, unconscionable attack.
It is time for Mark Zuckerberg, Sundar Pichai, Parag Agrawal and other Silicon Valley leaders to choose sides, and to suspend these accounts until Russia ceases its attack and withdraws from Ukraine. The apps they operate are not fun and games. Their platforms are not an abstract realm of ideas and debate. They are vehicles for the exercise of power. This is war- and the lies and falsehoods that the Russian state media and Putin’s officials will share in the next days across American social media platforms are weapons intended to legitimize the Kremlin’s brutality, divide Ukraine’s allies and diminish any potential opposition.
-Recall all ambassadors from Russia. There is no point in talking. The new unified message is “stop or be isolated completely”.— Garry Kasparov (@Kasparov63) February 24, 2022
-Ban all elements of Putin’s global propaganda machine. Turn them off, shut them down, send them home. Stop helping the dictator spread lies & hate.
The Biden administration should issue clear sanctions preventing American digital media firms from- at the very least- doing business with and monetizing Russian state accounts. And, it should do more to demand the platforms address inauthentic accounts suspected of being tied to the Kremlin. Silicon Valley firms have simply not put the necessary resources into identifying and disabling such accounts; new networks are identified regularly. It is time for the platforms to put all hands on deck– and to take great care, as well, not to destroy evidence of Russian war crimes or diminish the ability of the Russian and Ukrainian opposition by taking down content or accounts in error.
The Russian Federation will maintain plenty of official channels to get its message across, and journalists will continue to report on its statements. There is a wide variety of pro-Kremlin media and personalities it will be impossible to connect definitively to the Russian state; and other platforms, such as Telegram, will no doubt continue to serve as useful tools to distribute propaganda and manipulate media.
Suspended accounts can be restored if the situation (or Russian leadership) changes in the future. But Silicon Valley- which has played a role in the corrosion and decline of democracy across the globe, as well as other human rights atrocities– must not assist Russia in its bid to deny Ukraine its sovereignty and freedom in this crucial moment. Its leaders cannot make up for what they have done to aid Putin and divide the West, but with a clear line crossed, they must now act. This is no longer political discourse- it is violence, it is vicious thuggery.
If they do not, they will again expose themselves as profiteers passively in league with authoritarian butchers. It’s now or never.
Note: Hitler and his propaganda chief did in fact have a massive propaganda effort aimed at subverting the American media, and in particular Hollywood- a recent documentary shed more light on it. But Goebbels never dreamed of Facebook.
Justin Hendrix is CEO and Editor of Tech Policy Press, a new nonprofit media venture concerned with the intersection of technology and democracy. Previously, he was Executive Director of NYC Media Lab. He spent over a decade at The Economist in roles including Vice President, Business Development & Innovation. He is an associate research scientist and adjunct professor at NYU Tandon School of Engineering. Opinions expressed here are his own.